War blog. For war and COIN geeks. If you think of the latter as small round metal things, turn around. This'll just bore you.
This is a blog on war and peace. Mainly war, actually. Not necessarily war fought with guns (or spears) - though there's a lot of that -, but all kinds of conflict. There's, of course, a particular emphasis on AfPak, but you're welcome to pop in here even if you don't tend to drink three cups of tea. Actually, you're especially welcome in that case.
COIN blog buddies, inspirations and folks to listen to:
SPC John Dever of Chicago, IL, with Blackfoot Company 1st Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment has Thanksgiving dinner while standing watch in a guard tower November 26, 2009 in Matakhan, Afghanistan. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Fuck me, that food tray brings back some memories… I swear, there must be people all over the world who got PTSD not from war but from the crap they were fed in the meantime.
Starbuck has a link today to a pretty good article by Matthew Levitt in the JISA: It’s the Ideology, Stupid!. CT efforts are, Levitt writes,
tactically strong. We are well-positioned to tap the right phones, carry out surveillance of the right targets, and as a result we have a truly remarkable track record of preventing attacks (though some, like the shoe bomber, underwear bomber and Times Square bomber, simply failed without being foiled). Where we remain inexcusably weak, however, is in the realm of strategic counterterrorism, or counter-radicalization.
I’m not quite sure I’ve heard this expressed this clearly, but Levitt most definitely deserves praise for pointing out the big weakness of our COIN/CT strategy. The problem is, we don’t have one.
We don’t have a coherent narrative. We have COIN tactics, which are good at solving small-scale problems. Partly, this seems to reflect a reluctance to engage with substantive issues like faith, self-determination and how other people run their affairs (which usually ends with “…should be none of our concern”). More so, however, it reflects the day-to-day nature of COIN. We have wonderful strategies to survive until Friday afternoon, but nothing about not having to expend money and manpower to fighting insurgencies. The reality is that we understand how an insurgency operates, but we do not understand what an insurgency is. We think in strategies that may at best ensure peace in a village or a small region, but not a comprehensive plan. What we lack is a coherent narrative of counter-terrorism. The 9/11 attacks delivered the foundation of sorts to such a narrative - COIN and CT are important because they keep people from flying planes into our buildings. That’s not enough, however, for the wider narrative. In our culture, offensive war is ‘not on’. We don’t have a war department but a ministry of defence. Creating wars is not acceptable socially. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (or at all!), but it has impressed itself onto military thinking - all our wars are defensive. Even OIF was conceptualised as a primarily defensive action with the purpose of getting rid of Saddam’s WMDs threatening the US and its allies in the region. And so no military thought that looked at these wars as what they were from a non-political, unspinned perspective has had the chance to gain traction. In reality, these conflicts could have been approached as being principally about counterterrorism and the latter being about kicking the crap out of AQ, no apologies made. The reluctance to make war on another state is understandable - but the reluctance to persecute, track down and kill AQ, regardless of whether they are a current threat to the US, is less so. How we fight is determined by how we think about our place in the annals of history, how we think of ourselves remembered: as a bully or as a liberator, as the warmongers or the brave fighters against an organisation that is, for the lack of a better word, a collection of thoroughly evil motherfuckers. Too afraid of being remembered as the unwanted peacemaker, the West has never developed a strategy that, in clear terms, defined those social and cultural structures that spawn terrorism, and attack them. We don’t have an anti-terrorism strategy because we don’t have a way to tell the Saudis that civilised people don’t ban women from driving, and a fortiori don’t stone them. We don’t have an anti-terrorism strategy because we’re totally ok with beheadings and hands cut off because it’s their culture (read, we’re not willing to actually give them a bollocking).
Tactics can be just about anything. Strategy, however, calls for a wider perspective. A wider perspective calls for actions that go beyond the narrow ambit of warfare and spread into politics, trade, foreign relations, diplomacy, culture, and so on. World War II didn’t need much of a strategy. “Kill Nazis, blow up tanks, shoot down planes, liberate village, drink wine, go home, get medal” was a pretty good prescription for warfighting. That’s because the Nazis were little more than an army and a huge sodding bureaucracy. AQ is different. AQ and the whole phenomenon of terrorism goes beyond war. It is also a social phenomenon, an economic one, a cultural one, and so on. It is, in short, a narrative. It is a story into which more and more young Middle Eastern men, feeling disenfranchised (as young men always do, seeing as you rarely get the moon on a stick when you’re 24) and easily approached by terrorists who give them purpose and a cause, seek to write themselves. It is probably worth looking back at one of the much neglected phenomena: the fake terror cell. Franz Fuchs, for all intents and purposes the textbook version of the lone terror loonie, claimed after his arrest to have belonged to the Bajuwarische Befreiungsarmee, a totally fictitious terror organisation. Why? He had nothing to gain from it. Nothing, except a purpose. Man cannot live without purpose. Man cannot live without a narrative - without knowing what his role is, and what the play is about. Those who don’t have one will seek out one. Those who can offer one will always have the personnel they need, for whatever nonsense they need it (including suicide bombing). And those who wish to combat them cannot merely shoot down the actors. Kill the actors, and the playwright writes new ones. The West has to develop its own narrative, and counter the opposition’s. There is a distinct shortfall in that area -and so what Levitt accurately identified as a lack of strategy is not the illness, it’s a symptom. We don’t have a strategy because we don’t have a narrative from which to create one.
And here’s the crux; Libya is also neither Afghanistan nor Iraq. Libyan human leadership capital is far better than that of either Iraq or Afghanistan. There is a middle class unlike in Afghanistan where it had been destroyed by the Soviets. Sectarianism of the sort we saw in Iraq is far less of a factor. Libya’s infrastructure has suffered far less damage than that suffered by Afghanistan and Iraq and with high-grade oil Libya can afford its own future.
I agree with Lindley-French’s broader point, but not with what the really important difference is. Disfavoured recently in the analysis of international relations, there has been little attention paid to comparing the traditions of statehood in the three states. In Libya, there has been a state of some description since the Carthaginian hegemony across the shores of North Africa established around 500 BCE. So for the last two and a half millennia, with the brief intermezzo of the ineffective Byzantine rule after the fall of Rome and before the Arab conquest. Carthage gave way to Romans by 74 BC who then channeled over into Byzantium who were kicked out around the mid-600s by the Arabs who then were supplanted by the Ottoman Empire who then were kicked out by the Italians who then were in turn chased away by 1951, when Libya declared independence. Compare that to Afghanistan, where the brief periods of united statehood are essentially minute anomalies of a history of virtually exclusively tribal society spanning 6000 years. Whereas Libya is about changing the locus of power in a state that has been in existence for half a century and in other political contexts has existed for much, much longer than that, Afghanistan was about creating something that has never really existed in reality, and Iraq was about doing away with as much of a fundamentally broken and corrupt state structure as it was possible. With nation–states losing control of the central position of analysis in international relations, analysis runs the risk of ignoring how important traditions of statehood are in examining the prospects of a political transformation.
Imagine you have just been asked to write the screenplay of the feature length film about the political transition in Libya. You have all the money, all the actors, all the resources at your disposal. All you need to figure out at this point, is where the story starts–and where it ends. This opens the door to a significant influx of a form of bias that has long been much neglected in thinking about the Libyan issue.
Western commentators have been brought up in an intellectual tradition of individualism. In the Western civilisation, when things happen, they happen because individuals make it happen. Just imagine the ancient Greek epics: they are not about impersonal forces and how those forces clash, they are about individuals. At the centre of every epic is a hero, and it is him, the individual hero, who is the focal point of the epic. Even when the hero encounters a conflict with abstract ideas, these ideas are personified to shift them onto level of conflict intelligible to an individualistic worldview. Odysseus doesn’t do battle with abstract ideas like a reluctance to go home from the Trojan war that has shaped his existence for a decade or his infidelity, he fights personal emanations of these concepts in the physical world. To our individualistic intellectual tradition, fighting a Cyclops is more intelligible than the warrior from the fierce realities of the battlefield to the time society. And so, from our earliest days, we are raised to see things to happen because a person made them happen. As a result, any narrative we tell, we tell framed in terms of individuals.
So where would your Libya movie end? In all likelihood, it would end in a dramatic scene of Gaddafi’s capture. Much in the same vein, if we would ask Hollywood to give us a narrative of Iraq or Afghanistan, it would centre not around the abstract ideas that are involved in transition into a democracy, that on the conflict with an individual in the middle – the capture of Saddam or Bin Laden. This bias is so strong that even with the best intentions, the planners of the intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan were facing a significant obstacle: every single idea of why things happen that has been built up in them through their education in Western, individualistic societies has told them that things happen because people make them happen, and if the responsible people are eliminated, the more complex issues will resolve themselves. Therefore, the main priority would be to capture of Saddam and bin Laden, rather than meticulous focus on the political issues that are involved in managing the transition. This bias would be duly credited for being the source of much of the Coalition forces’ inability to to create a long-term, sustainable future for Iraq and Afghanistan.
In analysing the current transition in Libya, our Western worldview is likely to take us down the same path. What is wrong with Libya is seen all too frequently as not being a matter of a wrong political system, badly run on bad principles, but as the product of a single person: Gaddafi. It is true that Gadaffi is not merely the figurehead but also the linchpin of the system. However, what is wrong with Libya goes significantly beyond the matter of one individual, and the risk that lies in conceiving of the entire issue not as creating a sustainable political transition in Libya but as first and foremost getting rid of the figurehead of the old regime is that it will ultimately achieve will be no more than replacing Gaddafi while not replacing the system that allowed him to keep Libya firmly in his grasp. What such an intervention will ultimately achieve will be replacing Gaddafi without creating guarantees that whoever end up replacing him will not be able to follow in his path. And so, another inchoate transition will yield not much more than sacrifices by the people in vain, expenditure by Western forces in vain and enduring instability.
What must ultimately be understood is that it is indeed individuals - their aspirations, dreams, hopes, flaws and virtues - that drive the world. But the political transition of a country goes beyond individuals. A fortiori, it goes beyond getting rid of a particularly loathsome individual. What it needs to achieve is to put in place the adequate ideas and join them up with the right people. And so, as long as the predominant idea of transition in Libya remains “anyone but Gadaffi”, the future of that country remains uncertain. Right now, our understanding of the processes on the ground is patchy at best. It is actually not necessarily as a result of lacking intelligence capabilities and assets, but as a result of the organic development of political shifts. Right now, everything is up for grabs. The West clearly committed itself against Gaddafi, which in principle is definitely correct. The challenge now for the West, commentators and and politicians alike, will be to articulate an alternative that goes beyond “anyone but Gadaffi”. There is precious little in evidence of concerted efforts to detach oneself from the old biases and Hollywood prejudices in which the rebels that fight the forces of evil dictator are, by definition, seen as the “good guys. If the West is to assist the Libyan people with full awareness of the responsibility that entails, it must create a new narrative that will sever ties with the narrative that has consistently dominated Western–Libyan political interactions for the last four decades. That narrative has been spun around the person of Gaddafi, who, in all likelihood, will next be seen emerging from a bunker flanked by the special forces who captured him. For what it’s worth, the story of Gaddafi is over. The longer we insist on allowing him to linger in the middle of our focus, the longer we remain exposed to the risk of ignoring significant, possibly even threatening, developments that take place outside the narrow focus.
Call centres are one of those things in the modern world that we’d rather do without. That view isn’t exactly shared by companies, so we won’t be spared ‘Hi, my name is Cindy, how can I help you?’ and ‘Your call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes’ anytime soon. Well, believe it or not, there’s a lot you learn in warfare big and small, gunny and non-gunny, that may help you get out of a call centre experience without a major stroke. I had a run-in with my bank’s call centre today, after they left me up Shit Creek, Pra Nang Province, Bumfuck Egypt, sans paddle. Some good advice:
Are you angry? ANGRY? HULK SMASH ANGRY? Good. It’ll motivate you and keep you going, and trust me, you’re gonna need endurance. It’s a war of attrition and you’ll need a lot of endurance to win it, and nothing gives you endurance like a good stroke to your beta adrenergic receptors by some juice from the brothers on the top of your kidney. But…
Going into battle is a stupid idea. You need to let it go. In this business, you’ll have to talk to a lot of people you’d love to smash up and befriend them. You’re going to be big brother, counsellor, friend, father confessor and the strict boarding school matron who sent you to bed at 8pm and told you that if you keep reading War and Peace under your cover, you’ll get the Battle of Borodino from your housemistress tomorrow in live technicolor. And so, you need to get rid of your anger. Sit down in a comfy chair, and close your eyes. Feel the anger in your body, and try to draw it from your body into the point at the bottom of your sternum. Feel it leave the edges of your body and collect into a hot ball of rage at the bottom of your sternum. When you feel like it’s almost ready to burst, let it slowly go with a slow breath, and feel it leave your body as you exhale. I tend to imagine it as exhaling a sort of red, toxic mist. It takes practice, but you cannot, I repeat, you cannot achieve anything with blind rage.
**Cindy isn’t your enemy.* Cindy, who actually may well be called something boring and un-sexy like Hildegard or Gudrun, has done nothing to you. There’s no point in screaming her down. Be polite. “Hi Cindy, my name is Chris. How are you today?”. They’re probably bored out of their minds, and a polite voice and some small-talk helps you connect. Connecting over the phone is so much more difficult to most people whose training is mainly about how to do it in person, and you’re liable to do it wrong. Still, keep trying. Don’t befriend her too much, just be polite. Explain to her that you need to talk to her manager, because it’s about something rather unpleasant. Most call centre drones hate their managers, and will be more than eager to land some shit on their necks. Decide if they’re your target - if you want to achieve something minor, that may well be the case. If not, keep escalating, with the same trick - you have a problem, and you don’t want to load it on their neck, let’s pester their superior. And so on.
Dominate rapidly. Don’t start begging. Your first exchange of sentences sets the scene, and you will have neither time time nor the way of proof to change anything about it. What scene do you want to build? Do you want to build a scene in which you’re asking for help, or where you’re offering help? Go for the latter. Your target should know from the first second onwards that it’s him who’s in poo-poo land, and not you. You’re his lifeline. You’re going to pull him out of the shite, but you need his cooperation.
You don’t have a problem. We have a problem. You and your target have a common problem. Your target is in trouble, and you, as a good friend, are going to help him get out of it. You’re sharing his problem, rather than making him share yours. You didn’t get your internet connected/dripping boiler repaired/cat neutered/test results mailed/whatever. A fair few bored managers will say ‘how the heck is that my problem?’. Don’t get to the point where they ask that question. Start out clearly, asserting that there is a problem, and it’s mainly his.
Don’t threaten, it’s puerile and a sign of weakness. Just keep a gentle atmosphere of fear going. “So Steve, we’ve got this problem about my boiler - listen, I’m trying to help you here, let’s solve this together. But you’ve got to throw me a line.”
We few, we lucky few, we band of brothers. “You know how these things are” - and “Yeah, I know how these things are”. If you can credibly pull it off, feel free to tell him you’ve done this kind of job before. I’ve built hundreds of networks from small to large, so I can pull it off with my internet provider, but I know literally nothing about boilers except how to blow them up.
You’re friends, not buddies or mates. We live in this daft society where we call everyone a buddy or a mate or other term of endearment. Like fear, friendship is best expressed by behaviour, not by daft words. I’ve seen people build this amazing friendly rapport, then fuck it up by calling the target ‘mate’. Boom. Out of the window.
Have clear aims, but don’t be reluctant to compromise. Not too reluctant, anyway. Overshooting my be sensible if you can pull it off credibly, but if you want your internet to be connected tomorrow morning, telling the chap that you’re gonna lose your job unless it’s connected by 1800 today is not going to go well. Quite apart from the fact that it makes him feel like he’s got the upper hand.
Stroke your target’s ego. Give him control without control over you. This is very difficult and probably one of the harder things in this area, at least in my view. There is simply no useful, paradigmatic way to describe this. “Steve, you’re a big man. You’re in charge. I mean, you’re Assistant Manager of Networking Operations! You can make this happen.” The fella is probably the corporate equivalent of a Petty Officer 3rd Class, but you’ve got to learn to make him feel like the captain of the USS Nimitz. He’s a superior officer. BUT: he’s superior where he is. He runs his flock of drones. Do not even hint at the fact that he’s in any way superior to you. Keep your rapport going, and be sure to keep the ‘scene’ going, too. You’re helping him.
You may well cost the poor sod his job, or at least get him demoted or reprimanded, depending on what you’re asking. First and foremost, if you’re uncomfortable with that, then by all means get the heck out of the kitchen. This isn’t the Peace Corps and you’re sure as heck not going to gain preferential entry through the Gates of Heaven for what you’re doing. Let’s be clear: you’re using people to achieve what you want, you may well be putting them in harm’s way, and even if you’re developing them as assets long-term, you will at some point drop them. You pretend to be their friend, you lie, cheat, deceive and do other sorts of nasty things, and whether it’s for small or big, you better be damn sure that what you’re getting out of this will be worth carrying the stain on your soul for the rest of your life. Every target gets the chickens at some point. This is where you step up to the big leagues. Your bond of trust must overcome his fears. This is where your work so far gets tested. “If my supervisor finds out, I’ll get into trouble.” “Heck no, Steve! When I worked at MegaPhone, I did this all the time for my mates and my supe never minded - he did the same stuff when he was in your seat!” Clearly your bond is going to be stronger if you can act on his mind as well as his heart, you’ll be in a stronger position. Beats having to say ‘nah, I don’t really think you will’ or ‘yeah, but no risk, no fun!’. You’ve gotta be an ace to pull those off. Heck, I have no idea how I’d even go about doing it.
Be grateful, but keep the scene! A lot of people tend to drop their rapport when they’ve got what they wanted, which makes the target feel used (which they are, but there’s no need to make them feel like it, too), or drop the scene, which not only makes sure you’ll never be able to use that person ever again or get anything more out of him, but also that he might well change his mind to do what you want him to do in the future. Endurance game, remember?
Thank the chap, but remember the last point. He didn’t do you a solid. Rather, you solved a problem, which was largely his, together. “Hey, Steve, I’m so glad I got to talk to you rather than someone else, I’m really glad we managed to sort this out together! And hey, good luck with that customer service departmental bowling match next week, okay?”.
As said, this is in many ways a short guide to going to Hell, and if you’re in bed with the Devil, you’re not going to get bonus points from the Upstairs Department. The best thing you can do if you’re actually forced to deploy any of this - whether it’s against your bank, your ISP, your boiler repairman or a terrorist - is to use it as little as possible, be as nice as possible and do as little damage as possible. I would normally say good luck, but as said, I’d rather you treated this as educational material.
There are a million ways of getting people to help you. Most of them do end with ‘and I am now going to Hell, I’ll see you later, please notify the burns unit’. This is one, and one of the more harmless. It does not involve raising your voice, and a lot of people think that that makes it somehow superior to a good old honest rage attack, but as you can see, there’s a lot of moral issues about it.
I’ve never experienced toxic leadership. Then again, I’ve never tried to eat or inhale any of my leaders.
Jokes aside, the matter of toxic leadership has become pretty central, following the Army’s announcement that it is not putting up any longer with E-5s to O-7s (a surprisingly high rank actually!) bullying their subordinates under the guise of leadership. Let me, before any sensible consideration, put up three quotes that are in some way or other relevant:
“Attitude reflects leadership, captain”
— Big Ju, to team captain Gerry Bertier in Remember the Titans (video)
Keep firing assholes! Army to purge ranks of toxic leaders. http://bit.ly/q59mLS
— Tweet by Starbuck on the Mil Times article (a twofer, as otherwise I would have had to link that, too) 1
We’re here to preserve democracy, not to practise it.
— Gene Hackman as Capt Ramsey in Crimson Tide (video)
Let me start with a provocative assertion: I’m young and reasonably junior. Therefore, I know more about leadership than older folks.
Now that you’re sufficiently agitated, let me explain. An general knows a lot about what it’s like being a leader. Having gone through a long career, I guess, he has had leadership responsibilities from a squad up to an entire army or a branch of one of the armed forces. He has a history of being a leader, and has experiences of what it is like to lead. His experience is about being a leader.
A young ell-tee, however, knows leadership. Well, not entirely, but he is learning it. And learning leadership is, really, knowing leadership. It is a radically different knowledge from the general’s. It’s not looking back at how one has been a leader for forty years, but examining oneself and one’s actions critically and trying to figure out what the hell this leadership, toxic or not, is. For everyone gets a lot of leadership talk pumped into them, but nobody can tell you what it is in a quick oneliner after which you’ll exactly know what to do and when. And that’s a good thing. It means that leadership is something way too complicated to express. In a way, the current leadership culture sends a clear message: if you’ve ‘got it’, you’ll be able to figure out what leadership is, and if you’ve got a problem discerning it in yourself, well, you may not really officer material, have you thought about a job in the Pay Corps?
So leadership for a junior officer is not looking over a distinguished past but being shit-scared and trying to discern what the heck leadership really is. He doesn’t know about what being a leader is like because he’s hardly been one for minutes. But he knows that painful, arduous and often painstakingly shite process of sitting on the ground with the map after he has dismissed the Sgt and the troops and worrying himself till his pants are full about whether he’s taken the right decision (and if he’s lucky, this is a peacetime exercise, not something where he may end up having to write letters to the mothers and wives of those men. Andat that point, he knows leadership. Not what it feels like, but what it actually is.
I’ve been in my fair share of leadership positions, and I’d lie if I said I loved all of them, or even most of them. Some, in fact most, came with unpleasant things attached, and eventually, you’ll think twice. When I told my friend and mentor, a former teacher of mine, about this, he looked me in the eyes and said: “THIS is the point when you HAVE to look for more leadership positions. Because, son, you’re growing up”.
And growing up is a big show. It’s not about promotions and the number of stripes on your epaulet or the assignments or the number of people you’re in charge of. What it’s about is this: you are engaged in a near life-long process of discerning what that word they drummed into your ears for four years means: ‘leadership’. You didn’t get an answer. You got a question. The answer is up to you to find.’
And that’s the miracle of leadership: there is no touchstone of good leadership. There are small edges of almost always correct and almost always bad actions, and then there’s a huge penumbra. And you then are in this penumbra and are to figure out what to do - and all you’ve got in your toolkit are your past thoughts about the matter and your gut feelings.
As I enthuse, though, about this miracle, I must not forget that when a discernment of anything is a human process, it is as good as humans are. Or as bad. Crikey, now that’s bad news.
And the result are people who, for whatever reason (and mind you, there is a difference between reasons and justifications: every justification is a reason but not every reason is a justification - only good ones are!), developed into bad leaders. Some of them become a particular kind of bad, capricious leader, and Jean Lipman-Blumen, a professor of organisational behaviour (that’s strange for someone with no psychology degree!) and ‘public policy’, whatever-in-the-name-of-dog-that-is (seeing as a ‘policy’ requires a group of people to accept it, otherwise it’s just an individual habit or practice, I don’t quite know what ‘public policy’ actually means - in practice, it’s basically ‘talking about politics, but this tome not so much like someone who understands it’).
Clearly, I’m in hot, raging love with Ms Blumen, as the utter lack of any sarcasm in any of the above lines should prove conclusively. She’s not only got a very sexy array of awards from places like the International Leadership Organisation (I so wish I could be a fly on the wall at one of their leader-y meetings!), but also, very regrettably, popularised the term ‘toxic leaders’, originally invented by Marcia Lynn Whicker and described in Toxic Leaders: When Organizations go Bad. She’s also made good money out of writing a book about it, titled The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why we follow destructive bosses &c. &c. - I had to abbreviate the subtitle because its infinite length and sentential structure just stretched on and on and on endlessly and made me wonder whether this is a badly-done self-help book or something that wandered over from the Children’s Literature (Ages 2-4) section.
Meanwhile, 7800 miles from the office of this colossus of leadership in pleasant Claremont, CA, known jovially to locals as the ‘City of Trees and PhDs’, 24-year-olds make life and death decisions.
In Lipman-Blumen’s book, toxic leadership is not bad leadership, it is a particular kind of bad leadership. So far, so good. Then she goes into an endless wrestle to try to say what she wants and can’t - namely, toxic leadership is ‘functionally bad leadership we think is morally bad’. Her examples, other than basically being a walk through society to pick on as many of the GOP’s classic constituents as she can while still maintaining her guise as an academic (and really, I wouldn’t involve politics in this if she hadn’t brought it in, along with what appears to me to be a Jesuitic level of hatred of corporate-dom), are examples of leadership where quite apart from mismanagement (in fact, occasionally in face of functionally correct management, a fact she occasionally ignores) would constitute a morally wrongful act.
So what her long-winded stuff boils down to (OTC cadets who’ve been given the book as reading but don’t want to read it, look here): don’t be an asshole in a leadership position. No more, no less.
So basically, this be the verse:
Don’t be an asshole.
Keep firing assholes. (Starbuck’s Corollary) 1
The latter I hereby designate, in honour of the man who expressed it with such incisive clarity, Starbuck’s Corollary. This should be a priority for all armed forces. Heck, it should be priority for Wal-Mart, except normally, they do fire assholes once their assholeness becomes generally damaging (as someone who evidently never set foot in a corporate boardroom or had to stack shelves, she evidently doesn’t know that in business, assholes do not last long — I should know, Tesco’s fired me after two weeks).
Whether it’s a horror that we’ve gotten to the point that a) we need to tell people not to be assholes in leadership positions instead of flogging a few of them publicly (yes, toxic oh so toxic), b) you can earn fat bucks writing a ‘fine, scholarly book’ of 320 pages (I’ve been in academia for over half a decade but I’ve yet to see a ‘fine and scholarly* book that fit into 320 pages cum bibliography, but I digress) is an entirely separate issue and one that I’ll leave to grumble about in quiet when I have one of my Daily Mail-reader-ish Moral Outrage days. The point is that it is an issue currently, and that’s all that’s up on the table. Unfortunately you can’t make fat royalties off two simple lines, but just in case someone in the MoD gets a massive injection of pure pharmaceutical grade common sense and orders this to be put on the wall of everyone O-3 upwards, we’ll not only get fat royalties for it, but also better armed forces. Without making cadets read that long-winded anti-corporate diatribe. Here. Me, with the help of Starbuck’s tweet, summarised it in two lines. Betcha feel like a fool for having shelled out £13-00 of your hard-earned cash for it! Ask for a refund.
Now, in an ideal world, we’d just take these rules, and put them on the wall and implement them. This being the military, that’s exactly what’s not gonna happen. What is going to happen is the whole toxic leader stuff making its way to Whitehall and the Pentagon, where civil servants and the odd high-ranking officer, caught up in the latest wave of ‘building links’ to social sciences and humanities (there was an age when the average staff/flag grade officer spoke Latin and Greek — curiously, we didn’t need ‘building links’ and other bullshite back then) and injecting the whole toxic leader stuff into the already overloaded set of leadership mantras. Most of which, of course, are of as much use in actual engagements as a chocolate teapot. But because this is defence, there’ll also be some poor sod who will be tasked to make PowerPoint slides on the subject, which then people who really ought to do something far more sensible will have to endure, thereby steadily working their way towards the 1000 Hours Powerpoint badge, the majority of whom will exit either with a bunch of doodles on a notepad, or a big ‘whut?’ on their face. Never mind, because two weeks later, an equally soporific seminar will be held by an outside civilian contractor, for more than what the chaps in the room earn in a month. This may even feature ‘activities that encourage leadership’, and inevitably the ‘walk beyond the line’ and ‘jump off the table and they’ll catch you’ bollocks will be featured. To grown men and women.
Thank effing heck I am a civilian. At least when someone wants to do that kind of nonsense to me, I can say ‘fuck off’ without being sent to the brig for insubordination. Might, of course, get fired, but no risk - no fun!
So let me expand the above - Chris’ Three Cardinal Rules of Leadership:
Don’t be an asshole. - Chris’ Cardinal Rule
Keep firing assholes. - Starbuck’s Corollary
For Thor’s sake, don’t send your people on stupid seminars on toxic leadership.
They could always use the money that would have gone to the seminar for a great communal pissup. Which may or may not end Tailhook-esque, and may or may not end up seeing the remainder of the money being spent on a sexual harassment awareness seminar, but that’s for a different post.
1 Starbuck himself informs me that the Keep Firing Assholes - one of the more memorable Spaceballsisms (video) - in the context of, well, real Majors-who-may-not-be-named-but-are-assholes originates from a post on the Iron Dice blog (unfortunately, I can’t tell which author exactly). I am grateful for the correction and apologise to the original authors, I hope they’ll be placated by my next post ;)
This is an idea I’ve been taught in days of yore (something that makes me look way older than I actually am, but it seems like a previous life!), and which, while originally invented in the context of small scale conflicts, is with the odd alteration something worth thinking about in the context of conflicts and disputes of any size, kind or environ. I’ve been reminded of this by Sgt Rory Miller’s excellent book, Facing the Unexpected (which will have a rave review of its own here in a bit), the sequel to his equally worth-reading Meditations on Violence, which makes a virtually identical point.
120 seconds is the half-life of adrenaline. An aggressor steadily pickles his brain in adrenaline, preparing for confrontation, even if he initiates it (some people appear to have misunderstood adrenaline being the fight-or-flight hormone as being only relevant for fight when it’s an alternative to flight - this is not so).
Adrenaline is the immediate messenger of aggression. A number of chemicals contribute to aggression as a long term process (an example being testosterone, which increases the propensity to aggression), but when it comes to the fight, it’s adrenaline that does the heavy lifting. It has, mainly, two purposes: facilitate superior fighting capacity by, first, facilitating a stronger fight response, second, enhancing injury-resilience.
The first is accomplished by four synergistic effects: cardiac, respiratory, muscles and metabolism. Adrenaline is an inotrope and chronotrope, meaning it increases the contractility, and so output per heartbeat, of the heart muscle, as well as the number of contractions given time (aka heart rate). It is a smooth muscle relaxant, which means it relaxes the smooth muscles that line the bronchioles in the lungs and allows them to expand, increasing lung capacity (FVC), while also increasing respiratory rate. It increases the contraction strength of muscles, allowing more power to be exerted. Finally, it makes a significant change to metabolism - it diverts the body from long-term to short(ish)-term metabolism. Smooth muscle relaxation means also that the smooth muscles lining the stomach and intestines, responsible for peristalsis (moving food along your innards), become less active, and your digestion slows down. In a fight, there’s no point in spending time working on your lunch which may become energy in a few hours at best. What’s needed is quick energy once the ‘flash’ energy stores of the body, adenosine triphosphate, stored in cells runs out (a couple of seconds). Adrenaline stimulates the process for this, called glyconeogenesis, which makes glucose out of glycogen, the passive storage material.
The other side of adrenaline is to prepare for injury: as a vasoconstrictor, it constricts blood vessels and thereby decreases bleeding (which is why you get lidocaine epi in minor dental surgery). Biology lesson over: back to 120 seconds. With the beginning of a conflict, your body goes on battle stations, and prepares for the fight.
The downside is that in 120 seconds or so, it will start to fizzle out, and not only does your body become less effective at fighting, it also becomes aware of that, consciously and sub-consciously. Consciously, you feel less ‘pumped up’. Adrenaline is anxiogenic, meaning that it may cause you to feel anxious and that may make you misinterpret innocuous things as threats - this clears up once adrenaline breaks down. Subconsciously, your mind will interpret signals of sudden weakness (suddenly decreased heart rate) and the feeling of exhaustion and being out of breath that befalls most people after a stressful situation, as a sign to maybe cut back on the aggression and posturing.
The lesson, then, is this: a lot of conflicts can be de-escalated by ‘adrenaline attrition’: you try to keep the other dude talking for two minutes. You manage it, you win. More than likely, the most pumped up attacker will after two minutes flick his utterly illegal balisong back together and decide he didn’t really want to stab you for looking at his girlfriend in the first place. At this point, buying him a drink may be a good idea.
That solves how the 120 seconds may save your life against Dick the Pissed Redneck Boyfriend with a Flick-knife. Really, however, it demonstrates a larger principle: readiness is a good thing, but it has an expiry date. For you, the lesson is to know when to get ready, because it will start a ticking clock and when it runs out, your window of opportunity to benefit from preparation will close and it will become a disadvantage real soon. The lesson if you’re O-3 or below is simple, know when to prepare. The lesson for O-4 and above, as well as the Washington and London REMFs political and military who like to meddle with field ops, should be equally clear: If you see someone’s op has reached preparation stage, stop fucking with it <-> if you want to fuck with a field op, for Chrissakes do it before it reaches preparation stage.
The broader lesson (COIN nuts skip all of the above and start here) for counterinsurgency warfare would be this: attriting the insurgents’ preparations can deliver massive tactical advantages. Ok, you say, that’s basically Bismarck era military wisdom, what’s new? Here’s the ‘new’ thing: let’s start adopting a workflow perspective to insurgency. I’d even suggest to bring in a few project managers and supply chain management experts to help (in the worst case, if this doesn’t work out, send them to teach Six Sigma to the Taliban - guaranteed defeat within a month).
A million ways have been tried to map insurgency and insurgent ops and analyse them. Let me suggest anew one: Gantt charts. Now I’m the last person who wants to burden intelligent, hard-working S-2s (all two of them*) with such management nonsense. It does, however, reveal something the whole network view should’ve revealed but was mainly hidden under Everestesque piles of bullshit: insurgency takes place inside a huge web of supply relationships, and the further you move from the centre of the web, the more bang you get from your buck.
The local terrorist leader may be heavily guarded, inaccessible and when you take him out, you’ll have a new one well before he’s buried, swearing bloody revenge. Chances are, he’ll be even crazier than the last ‘un. But how difficult is it to stage an op against the unwitting agricultural supplies storekeeper who sells to the front man who supplies the local IED knitting circle? The mobile phone dealer in Kabul who sells a hundred phones a day, and only one of which ends up in an IED killing soldiers in the Helmand? The way to catch a spider is not to shake the middle of the net - it will only run away on the sides. You close in from the edges of the net and cut it away until it has nowhere else to go.
A Gantt chart would facilitate identifying dependencies of operations. This can then traced to the end and mapped as a web of supply influx towards a particular insurgency op. Finding the most critical external dependencies and disrupting them gradually from the outside in is a good, cost-effective method of combating insurgency. The S-2 impact of this is to ask less what the local insurgency is planning: unless you have a top level source, you are not going to get reliable info, and if you do and act on it, you have an Atlantic Convoy/ULTRA problem. The new key question should be: what are the local fundie jundis buying? (apart from Toyota Land Cruisers - what’s it about the Land Cruiser that makes fundies love it? Does it come with a special compartment for the black turban?). It’s cheaper, less risky to assets and operatives alike, can be done by NOCs a lot better, and seeks info available to a very wide range of pretty low level assets.
So remember how to catch a spider. And how to deal with someone so his supply chain will have enough bottlenecks so that his 120 seconds are up before he can act. I could couch this in very Boydian terms, but I’m on a Boyd diet :) As the truly admirable work of Chet Richards bought mathematics and the then nascent field of mathematical operations research to bear on Boyd’s work, it’s time to see if some business management, supply chain, lean management ideas would assist with exploiting our enemies’ weaknesses.
And in the worst case, we can always sell the supply chain people to the fundies.
* This is a joke. I love S-2s, but I also love having a joke at their expense. They’re just too easy! Most of them, after having punched me out a few times, have learned to be ok with it. I’m sorry if you’re offended. I’ll buy you a Snappy Cow, ok?
In general, the view of Aztec war that we profess is pretty schematic: kill, maim, sacrifice. The Aztecs were pretty good at things in and around war that we today abhor - including one of the largest mass murders in human history. So it was interesting to see a very different approach, one much closer to historical truth, emerge in this article, by Dr Zhivan Alach, a fellow at the SSI. Dr Alach is not a historian, he’s got a doctorate in security studies, so he really did perform well in the amateur history department.
Somewhat more interesting (and far shorter than Dr. Alach’s article at its 81-page somewhere-between-paper-and-monograph length) is this response to it by an anonymous author on the Kings of War website. Essentially, he dismantles Alach’s thesis piece by piece, and a lot of his points are valid. I would like to concentrate on one here.
Normally, an article that contains phrases like “the chauvinistic misdemeanour of reifying the West’s superiority to that of the savage Other” do not tend to endear themselves to me. This article is an exception: it is well-written and makes sense. Its main point: painting the military in the role of servant, not master, in warfare.
Now, war is a social act. That means we’ve got people running the show, and we’ve got a society who mandates those people to do violence on others, through the parliamentary ratification of the armed action (or whatever the local flavour of ratifying war is). The armed forces are, in this sense, mandated agents of society.
That’s the author’s view, and it makes sense. Up to a point. It fits with a liberal idea of keeping Colonel Blimps out of decision-making, and having them do what Whitehall and Westminster decide. The underlying fear of a militarist society and of the erosion of the liberal ideas held by the mainly ‘liberal’ political establishment (I use this in an extremely wide sense) versus the ideas of a more regimented military establishment, peek through this view (indeed he uses the spectre of militarism explicitly at one point). The military, quite simply, has a different mindset, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it (except getting rid of the whole place). It has some strange ideas, like that because I have two light blue stripes on my shoulders, you have to salute me if you only have one, and a fortiori so if all you have are chevrons. Sure, you say ‘good morning’ to the managing director before he does, but it’s definitely not in the company rulebook, if you do it it definitely cannot land you in a hearing for insubordination and it sure as heck isn’t reflected in the way you dress. Now, I am unwilling to go to the lengths of perceiving life in the armed forces the way Gene Hackman’s brilliantly played character in Crimson Tide, CPT Ramsey, did - to “preserve democracy, not to practice it’. But what is true is that the Whitehall bureaucrats and the Westminster establishment only get to chat over Chardonnay at Westminster hangouts about the liberal ideas and how the armed forces are living in some sort of almost ridiculous and satirical world out of Gilbert & Sullivan, a description that at times is supplemented by mentions of how ‘inhumane’ that life is, including pale-faced mentions of the practice of sergeants to scream at lower-ranking enlisted men (yes, really).
The problem here is, basically, a generational problem. The model of having military leaders shut up was sustainable in the time it worked. The author ignores a crucial fact. The time this system worked best was the second half of the 20th century. He completely ignores that most men, and men did at the time make out the vast majority of both Whitehall and Westminster, used to be soldiers at some time or another. They had a soldier’s perspective and a soldier’s experiences, without being soldiers themselves at the time. We had what Anthony Powell called the military philosophers. We don’t have them anymore. There is no draft, and the wars we fight affect a small class. How many in the Civil Service have served? Most of them go through ridiculous stuff like Fast Track straight into administrative positions in the civil service without having done and seen what they are actually administering. The article by the anonymous author made sense in a semi-militaristic society. That precisely was why there was no need for military men to speak up: those who made the decisions, with the democratic mandate, simply knew.
This is not the case today. As armed action has become increasingly complex, the number of people right south of the river who don’t think about a small rounded metal object you pay with when they hear a mention of COIN has precipitously sunk. Officers sit in small rooms and have to explain in kiddie terms what the heck it is they’re doing, and that’s the better variant - often enough, the stage of actually asking people doesn’t even happen.
The anonymous author denounces what Alach suggests as a militaristic daydream with an anachronistic feel. Quite the reverse. It is his ideas that are anachronistic and would have made good sense in 1951.